Texas Democrats dig in after exodus; GOP threatens arrest

Paul J. Weber, Acacia Coronado and Brian Slodysko
Associated Press

Austin, Texas — Texas Democrats who hurriedly took off to Washington to block sweeping new election laws urged Congress on Tuesday to quickly pass legislation protecting voting rights, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return.

Speaking to reporters outside the Capitol, the Democrats were realistic about the limits of their gambit, noting they can hold up the GOP-backed proposals at home for only so long and arguing that only federal legislation would prevent some of the new restrictions from becoming law. In Austin, House Republicans authorized state troopers to find and corral missing legislators.

“We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely,” Democratic state Rep. Chris Turner said, gathered with his fellow quorum-breakers outside the U.S. Capitol.

The Democrats’ dramatic exodus to Washington was in part aimed at rallying their voters on what they see as a priority issue ahead of the 2022 midterms, and at pressuring President Joe Biden to act as a federal voting legislation has stalled for months in the Senate.

Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, center left, and Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, joined at left by Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, welcome Democratic members of the Texas legislature at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday.

Back home, Republicans in the unusually skeletal Texas Capitol authorized finding and bringing back more than 50 lawmakers “under warrant of arrest if necessary.” However, state troopers have no jurisdiction beyond Texas, making it unclear what – if any – actions would immediately be taken. A House Democrat who stayed behind said his understanding was that officers would search for his absent colleagues in Texas, even if it’s known they’re in Washington.

Abbott has already threatened Democrats with arrest once they come back home, which may not be until the current 30-day special session ends in August. Though that would successfully stymie the GOP’s current effort, Abbott has vowed to keep trying until the 2022 elections if necessary.

Turner, the Texas House Democratic leader, predicted the Texas Democrats’ efforts would ultimately be futile unless congressional Democrats take bolder action to overcome a Senate Republican blockade of their sweeping voting bill. The legislation, known as the For the People Act, would create national standards for voting that could roll back some restrictions that have been approved or are advancing in the Republican-led states.

The move by Texas House Republicans was expected after Democrats boarded private planes Monday to deny them the quorum necessary to conduct business – namely, passing one of America’s most restrictive voting measures. Other lighting-rod conservative issues that Abbott put on the agenda – including how race is taught in schools and new abortion restrictions – also were shelved with the Legislature now at a standstill.

“A sergeant-at-arms and any officers appointed by him are directed to send for all absentees whose attendance is not excused, for the purpose of securing and maintaining their attendance, by warrant of arrest if necessary,” Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said.

Shortly after the vote, sergeant-at-arms locked the chamber doors. Four Democrats who did not go to Washington were among the lawmakers still inside, while the voting mechanisms on the desks of absent Democrats were locked.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees state troopers and the Texas Rangers, did not comment after the remaining House members approved the measure 76-4.

State Rep. Eddie Morales, one of four Democrats who stayed behind, said it was his understanding that troopers would not leave Texas.

“I was told they will go to your home back in your district, they will go to your place of work, they will got to your apartment in Austin or wherever you live close by when you’re in session. And also family and friends that they may know of,” he said.

Despite the exodus by Democrats, Abbott has said Republicans will not be deterred.

“As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done,” Abbott told Austin television station KVUE.

It was the second time that Democratic lawmakers have staged a walkout over the voting overhaul, which they say will make it harder for young people, people of color and people with disabilities to vote. The legislation would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban drop boxes for mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers. Republicans say the measures are needed to fight fraud. Democrats counter that fraud is very rare and the bills target their supporters.

The measures are part of the GOP’s rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws – but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.

The state has a history of attention-getting political tactics. Democrats, shut out of power in the Texas Capitol for decades, last left the state in 2003 to thwart a redistricting plan. That year, troopers went to Ardmore, Oklahoma, and asked them to come home on a plane sent by the Republican House speaker. But they were unable to arrest the lawmakers without a warrant issued by Oklahoma authorities, and the lawmakers refused the troopers’ request.

Democrats ultimately lost that fight, with the GOP passing new voting maps.

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Slodysko reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno contributed to this report.